Torah Knowledge For Non-Jews Vol. 1
8. The Soul
The Material Body & the Immaterial Soul
God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life. Man then became a living being.
This famous verse describes man as a being created of two natures: the physical (the dust of the ground) and the spiritual (the soul – the breath of life). A subtle nuance of this verse is that man was animated with God’s breath – an exhalation from the innermost being of God. This is in contrast to the rest of creation, which was created by G-d’s speech – with sound waves created by God – which is a lower level of divine intimacy, one that is distanced from God’s essence.
Of course, God does not actually have breath. This is a merely a descriptive metaphor enabling us to discuss the concepts involved. It is an extremely apt one, however, and is elaborated upon greatly by our Sages.
The parable used by many sages to describe the nature of the soul is that of a glassblower creating a vessel. The glassblower dips one end of his tube into molten glass and places the other end against his lips. The breath originates at the lips, flows down the tube, and comes to rest in the molten glass below, forming it and shaping it into its final form as the glass blower rotates and turns the whole apparatus. Now, where is the soul in this analogy? Is it upon the lips of the glass blower, in the tube, or in the burgeoning glass bulb at the end? The answer is all three.
The Three Expressions of the Soul
The soul is constantly being “blown” into the being by God. As such, the soul exists in a constant dynamic relationship with its creator. This ongoing emanation of the soul means that the soul constantly exists in three expressions. Many writers have described these three expressions as levels, or components of the soul. However, such descriptions are misleading. I prefer to call it three “expressions” of the soul:
Neshamah, meaning “soul,” and derived from the word Neshima, meaning “breath.” In our parable, this is the exit of the breath from the lips of the divine glassblower. This is the essence of the soul and its highest and most intimate connection to God.
Ruach, meaning “spirit,” and derived from the word for wind. This is the moving, blowing of the soul into the world, representing the raging conduit and connection between man’s soul and God.
Nefesh, often translated as “soul,” yet better translated as “life-force,” is from the word Nafash, meaning “to rest.” It alludes to the divine breath coming to rest in the vessel of the body of man.
These three expressions exist simultaneously and in constant interaction with each other. While the Neshama is the closest to God and the place at which the soul’s truest essence resides, it is bound to the Nefesh, the component that enlivens the body and interacts with the rest of creation, via Ruach, the conduit of divine breath.
These soul-elements form a chain binding man’s soul to G-d:
The Nefesh is bound to the Ruach, the Ruach is bound to the Neshama, and the Neshama to the Holy One, Blessed is He.
The Five Expressions of the Soul
The Midrash, however, adds two more levels to the soul:
Chayah, “living essence,” and,
Yechidah, “unique essence.”
Our scholars understand these as two higher, almost completely imperceptible levels of the soul. They are, like God Himself, both immanent and transcendent in relationship to the lower levels of the soul.
If the Neshama is the breath of God, the glassblower, then Chayah is the body of the glassblower, the vehicle which gives motion to and exhales the divine breath. Note, though, that the breath exhaled by the glassblower is not intrinsic to His being.
The lower levels of the soul originate from His “body,” so to speak, yet are not “of” his body; they are a separate, created entity independent of, yet intimately originating from, the creator.
Yechidah, however, is something totally transcendent. It represents the true, inexpressible aspect of the creator. It is the innermost part of the creator which desires to create and knows its own purposes. In our parable, Yechidah is the soul of the glassblower, the innermost essence of God.
Man can only access the three lower levels of the soul: Neshama, Ruach, and Nefesh. The upper two levels belong to God Himself.
The Expressions of the Soul in This World
Each expression of the soul exerts its own influence over particular areas of human activity.
Nefesh, the lowest level, governs man’s physical interaction with the world. It transfers will into the animation of the body. It also binds the rest of the soul to the physical matter of the body.
Ruach, the motion of the divine spirit, is the source of the power of speech. It is responsible for the articulation and organization of inspiration into thought. This power, combined with Ruach’s duty as the conduit between the lower and higher expressions of the soul, also makes it the conduit for divine inspiration. Divine inspiration, in Hebrew, is called Ruach ha-kodesh, or holy Ruach. Ruach is also the realm of the emotions.
Neshama influences the higher realm of human faculties such as thought, intellect, and the spiritual sensibilities.